Remembering Anne Francis (1930-2011)

Francis died Sunday, Jan. 2, of pancreatic cancer at a rest home in Santa Barbara, Calif. She was 80.

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The first hour-long series named for its female character, Honey West was based on Skip and Gloria Fickling’s pulp-novel series about a woman who took over her late father’s detective business. Mixing clichés from private-eye and international espionage stories, then flipping the gender, Honey was a Bond babe — Jane Bond — put in charge of the franchise, and comfortable with the power it gave her. She bested bad men with her karate skills, navigated hairpin turns on high-speed chases in her top-down sports car and, just as important, displayed the business-running executive skills only men of the era were supposed to possess. Honey had a hunky male assistant, Sam Bolt (John Ericson), but he was there mainly as eye candy for the women in the audience. The men had Francis’ efficient allure, her newly fluffy blond hair and, of course, her facial mole, which was featured so prominently in the opening-credit sequence you’d think it was the co-star.

Aaron Spelling, the show’s executive producer, was no militant feminist; 11 years later he would multiply Honey by three, give this trio the sort of patriarchal boss Honey never needed, and call it Charlie’s Angels. As the overseer of Honey West, Spelling made sure sensuality took precedence over suspense. A smarty-pants sex object, Honey wore earrings she could toss like darts to emit tear gas. She often sported tights that looked as if they’d been borrowed from Diana Rigg in The Avengers. Once she went undercover in a showgirl outfit with tiger stripes, which was appropriate for this feral beauty, since her character also kept a pet ocelot named Bruce (a cousin to Francis’s tiger playmate in Forbidden Planet and to the leopard she morphed into on (The Twilight Zone). All this animal attraction should have kept the show running for years, but it was canceled after one 30-episode season.

Truth to tell, that was about it for the iconic phase of Anne Francis’s celebrity. She was 35 when Honey West went south, and the actress who entered show business as a child would keep working for another 35 years. In the 1968 musical Funny Girl she was billed a generous fourth but virtually invisible, except when Barbra Streisand disses her at the start of the first act’s climactic (and climatic) number “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” Thereafter, Francis had no big roles in big movies, instead becoming one of those aging performers of medium wattage who stay employed by joining the perennial bus-and-truck company of TV series guest stars. Webb, as her stuffy father in Dreamboat, had sneered at television as a phenomenon that “encourages people who dwell under the same roof to ignore each other completely.” But for Francis it was a meal ticket that she cashed in for 60 years, from those early color tests in 1940 until her retirement in 2000.

In her post-Honey decades, Francis guested on a few comedy series — The Drew Carey Show and, as Bea Arthur’s college roommate, on The Golden Girls — but concentrated on the hour-long dramas. She graced The Fugitive, Mission: Impossible, Gunsmoke, Columbo, Kung Fu, Barnaby Jones, Police Woman, Dallas (in a recurring role), Jake and the Fat Man, Murder, She Wrote and such Spelling confections as S.W.A.T., The Love Boat, Vega$, Fantasy Island (four times) and, it’s only fair, Charlie’s Angels. All in all, in the second half of her career, she racked up credits in more than 100 films and TV shows. Could that be a record for most series as a guest star? Hard to say, but the gal kept gamely at her craft.

She married twice, both times for three years: at 21 to director Bamlett Price, Jr., and at 29 to Dr. Robert Abeloff; they had a daughter, Jane. After the dissolution of her second marriage in 1964, Francis was on her own. In 1970, she became the first single woman in California to be allowed to adopt a child — a girl named Maggie. Francis wrote a self-help book in 1982 and lent her support to many charities, including Direct Relief, which sends medical supplies to victims of civil unrest, and Angel View, for the physically challenged. She promoted these causes on, which currently carries this message from 2009: “Dear Friends, Due to health issues, I’m unable to process my fan mail in a timely manner…. For those of you who’ve previously sent me fan mail and autograph requests, I’ll try to process them when I am able to do so.”

Even though she had retired 10 years earlier, survived lung cancer in 2004, and was ailing from the pancreatic cancer that finally felled her, the brainy, beautiful blond from the Forbidden Planet never stopped working, never ceased doing what she did best: being Anne Francis.

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